Perhaps the reason an encyclopedia of death has become the sole province of rock 'n' roll is best explained by the fact that not two years after the phrase "rock 'n' roll" was first coined, the body count started piling up. Clowning in a dressing room with a gun he thought wasn't loaded, R&B singer Johnny Ace became the first rock 'n' roll martyr. Somehow, the myth that he was playing Russian roulette made for a better story.
Between Ace's mishap and the Reaper's triple play on Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, The Encyclopedia of Rock Obituaries (Omnibus Press) lists the deaths of such blues pioneers as Big Bill Broonzy, Tommy Johnson, Tiny Bradshaw, W.C. Handy, Walter Brown, Joe Hill Louis and Blind Willie McTell. Add to that the deaths of George Nelson of the Orioles and singer Chuck Willis, whose posthumous double-sided hit "What Am I Living For" backed with "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" would've made a great rock 'n' roll suicide note had he not actually died on the operating table from a bleeding stomach ulcer. The body count piled high and fast in those early years. Just four days after the Holly crash, Guitar Slim died of pneumonia. Then there's the near-fatal car crash of Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls, plus the auto accident that sidelined Carl Perkins' career and took the life of his brother Jay. In 1960, Eddie Cochran bought the farm and Gene Vincent went for a ride and nearly bought the farm next door. No wonder Little Richard gave up rock for the minister's cloth when his plane caught fire somewhere over the Philippines in 1957. The message is clear: If the rhythm doesn't get you, the transportation will.
Likewise, this hard-covered coroner's report will get you in its cold fingers and not let go. Since reading it, I've become a nuisance to friends and family alike, as my uncontrollably morbid fixation on this tomb tome has me death-obsessed. Nowadays, a conversation with me will usually segue into unsolicited observations like, "Did you know the brunette half of the Shangri-Las are dead?" Or "Remember Orion, the Elvis impersonator who always wore a mask like the Lone Ranger? Yeah, he's dead. Shot at a convenience store. They killed his ex-wife, too." No wonder the phone isn't ringing. I've become Barney Fife, yepping all this useless information as if I've been entrusted with the keys to the jailhouse while Sheriff Andy's in Raleigh.
Don't let my failings in decorum cast The Encyclopedia of Rock Obituaries in an unflattering light. Unlike other past ghoulish literary works like Rock and Roll Babylon, which sensationalized many of these same deaths by printing disturbing photos of Sam Cooke's shot-up carcass or Otis Redding's corpse being pulled out of icy Lake Monoma, Rock Obituaries carries not a single photo or illustration. Just dates, career summaries, causes of death and the sometimes eerie coincidences that accompany them. Like the fact that Redding's scheduled opening act for that ill-fated Wisconsin gig was a band called The Grim Reaper! Everybody say "eeeeyoooh . . ."
Because it sets itself as "an authoritative reference work," there are also no crass charts depicting how many people died of drugs, heart attacks or plane crashes. But I know you're all as curious as can be, and I've got plenty of free time, apparently. So here's the breakdown. A word of warning: People who enjoy snacking on cherries and are prone to heart attacks may find the following information extremely disturbing.
Top Causes for Rock 'n' Roll Deaths:
Heart Attacks, 187
Various Cancers, 182
Drug Overdose, 59
Plane Crash, 46
Liver Disease, 37
Car Crash, 34
Bleeding Ulcers, 8
Brain Hemorrhage, 5
Falling Down Stairs, 4
Lou Gehrig's Disease, 1
Choking on a Cherry Pit, 1
Choking on Ham Sandwich, 0
In an effort to further their archaic "rock is evil" argument, the Internet naysayers from www.biblebelievers.com (see related story) would still have you believe that drugs are rock's biggest killer, but it's good, old-fashioned heart attacks that top out the rock list at 187. And even Billy Graham has had one of those. Drug overdoses check in at a surprisingly low 59. Even the number of plane crash victims isn't unique to rock. If I was compiling a list of pilots, the number of fatalities there would be nearly as high.
The book does have some questionable points, however. Frankly, I don't see how brain cancer victim Bert Convy could stamp "rocker" on his passport when his stint as the host of Tattletales clearly overshadows his brief singing career in The Cheers. Suitably peeved, I'm scratching at least one bleeding ulcer off the list on account of it belonging to Lorne Greene. Greene was a pioneer, all right, of the Ponderosa! I don't think Pa Cartwright deserves to be a rock obituary just because he had a 1964 hit song called "Ringo."
When you consider that these deaths have spanned the past 50 and 60 years, the figures don't seem that excessive. Except for that bit about falling down the stairs. Nobody should die from falling down a staircase. And three out of four of those deaths happened in England -- what kind of sinister stepwork do those freemasons get up to anyway? And why didn't Princess Di add "Safer Stairwells for Britain" among her champion charity causes?
One of the biggest surprises is that a rocker like Steve Peregrine-Took, percussionist and founding member of Tyrannosaurus Rex (the only group with all dead members), could ingest morphine all night without a problem but then get stumped on a fershloogin' cherry pit. Or that Mama Cass really didn't choke on that ham sandwich -- she died from losing too much weight too fast, ironically, the same cause of death as anorexic songbird Karen Carpenter. At the time of her demise, Cass was staying at the London flat of the late Harry Nilsson, the same flat Keith Moon would also die in four years later. Two important lessons to learn here. One, morphine and cherries don't mix. Two, if you are a rock star in London, do not accept an invitation to stay at Harry Nilsson's flat. At least Cass and Keith had the good sense not to get careless at the top of the stairs; it was in London, after all. I don't think rock could've survived six stair mishaps.
And here's another instance of the white man ripping off a brother. Shouldn't "Lou Gehrig's disease" have been named "Leadbelly's disease" since the African-American folk legend died of it first?
One of the worst phenomena surrounding such fatalities is the way people attempt to make undeserving heroes out of dead rock stars. Like those who try to paint Elvis as a musical martyr. His death couldn't have been more dorky -- falling face down off a toilet, unable to complete a bowel movement. But there have been performers who have given audiences every last ounce of rock 'n' roll in them, dying right there on the stage. These entertainers, this good-to-the-last-knee-drop brigade, deserve to be called heroes for bringing stage diving to its logical conclusion.
To determine just who are the greatest stage divers of all time, let us allot 5 points for actually dying onstage, 4 points for collapsing onstage, and 3 points for finishing the show and dying in a hospital.
Tiny Tim (4 points)
Shortly before his death, Tiny suffered a heart attack at an appreciably exciting ukulele festival. Tiny soldiered on the comeback trail, performing two months later at a Women's Club charity function. There he collapsed in the middle of "Tip Toe Through the Tulips" and would be pushing up daisies from there on out.
Papa Dee Allen (4 points)
Percussionist for War. Suffering an aneurysm, Allen collapsed onstage while performing the song "Gypsy." "Slipping Into Darkness" was next on his mortal set list.
Country Dick Montana (5 points)
The drummer and leader of the Beat Framers used to egg on club patrons to throw beer in his face, and he often used to jump on tables and kick back at surprised patrons. So when he suffered an aneurysm onstage, fell backward into his drum set and died within minutes, most assumed he was just exercising good showmanship.
Phillipe Wynne (5 points)
Lead singer of the Spinners from 1971 to 1977. During a 1984 solo performance, he jumped into the audience and suffered a fatal heart attack. The love of the crowd, the joy of singing "Rubberband Man" for the millionth time or the thrill of being in Oakland were probably all contributing factors.
Mark Sandman (5 points)
While performing onstage in Italy last year, the lead singer of Morphine suffered a fatal heart attack onstage. Exit the Sandman.
Les Harvey (4.5 points)
Lead guitarist for British group Stone the Crows. Harvey was electrocuted onstage by a poorly grounded microphone. We had to deduct half a point since he sizzled up at the very start of the show.
Kenny Pickett (5.1 points)
Lead singer of '60s British mod-psychedelic band the Creation. Pickett was "Making Time" at a pub gig in Mortlake, southwest of London, when he suddenly collapsed and died of unknown causes during an encore of "Johnny B. Goode." Pickett scores high points for completing the show and the encore before passing away.
Bob Hite (4 points)
The harmonica player for Canned Heat suffered a heroin-induced heart attack in 1981 while performing at the Palomino Club in Hollywood. Presumably, heaven needed a "harp" player. A severely overweight one.
Johnny "Guitar" Watson (3.5 points)
The famed blues guitarist collapsed and died of a heart attack after taking the stage at the Yokohama Blues Cafe in Japan. The Japanese organizers were naturally aghast; now the show was running an hour ahead of schedule.
Roland Alphonso (3.5 points)
Saxophonist for the Skatalites, Alphonso collapsed onstage, went into a coma and died two weeks later. Although he was probably moving around vigorously before seizing up, the lag time between collapse, coma and rigor mortis is just too long to suit our callous judges.
Lek Leckenby (2 points)
The original guitarist for Herman's Hermits didn't die onstage, but he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1992 and ignored his doctor's advice to stop touring, expiring two years later all because he thought the world was champing at the bit to hear a Hermanless Herman's Hermits.
Carolyn Leigh (2 points)
This composer suffered a heart attack while working with Marvin Hamlisch on a musical adaptation of Smiles. That's gotta be worth at least 2 points.
Steve Douglas (3 points)
This busy sax sessionist started out playing Phil Spector dates while still in high school and hardly let up afterward. He died of heart failure during a Ry Cooder recording session. Sadly, his final squawks were left on the cutting-room floor.
Suicide Is Pointless:
Michael Holliday (0 points)
Who'd have thought the first intentional rock 'n' roll suicide would be a British lite-pop balladeer? Holliday had a hit covering Marty Robbins' "The Story of My Life," but with the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" rising to number one, Holliday overdosed rather than witness his own chart obsolescence in late October 1963. What a lad, oh, what a night.
Carlos Vega (0 points)
Cuban drummer for James Taylor, Vega committed suicide by gunshot rather than appear with Taylor on The Oprah Winfrey Show the following day.
Yogi Horton (0 points)
Drummer who jumped out of a 17th-floor hotel window after performing at Madison Square Garden with Luther Vandross. Yes, another soft-rock-related death.
Timothy Leary (0 points)
This Tibetan Book of the Dead and acid advocate had inoperable prostate cancer. He planned to commit suicide and broadcast the images over the Internet, but he died in his sleep. Somehow, turn in, turn off and drop dead just doesn't cut it.